DETROIT (AP) — Berry Gordy Jr. took his “Motown the Musical” production to Broadway and a few other places first. Yet they were mere proving grounds for its date with Detroit.
The Motown Records founder says his latest creation has sharpened its storytelling to match the songs, many originally recorded at Hitsville, U.S.A. That’s the former studio right down the street from the Fisher Theatre, the musical’s home for the next few weeks.
“Bringing Motown to Motown is like the greatest gift in the world to me and I’m grateful for the fact that I’m even able to bring (the musical) to the place where I grew up,” Gordy told The Associated Press from inside the former studio building that now houses the Motown Museum. “This place was where I was that crazy little kid running around with all these crazy dreams. Now I bring it back in all its full glory.”
The 84-year-old was back in the real Motown this week for opening night. It’s where the label started in 1959, and scores of stars and hits were created, before it decamped for California in 1972. It was hard not to be moved by the energy in the theater Wednesday night, but that came as much from the talent offstage as on: Smokey Robinson sat a row in front of Gordy, Stevie Wonder two ahead of Martha Reeves. They and other Motown vets came onstage at the end to offer some heartfelt thanks and for Wonder to trade verses on “I Wish” with his actor-counterpart, Elijah Ahmad Lewis.
Likewise, Gordy is energized by the play’s success and excited to bring it to Detroit stronger, tighter and more focused than when it opened on Broadway early last year. More than 60 songs provide the groove and key guideposts for a story chronicling how his empire rose, fell and rose again. Highlights include “War,” ”What’s Going On?” ”My Girl” and “Dancing in the Street.”
He’s flooded by memories in the museum, which once housed his apartment, office and studio. Some are prodded by pictures and artifacts featuring the Supremes, Wonder, Robinson, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye. And moments that played out inside the building find their way into the play.
Gordy recalls mourning in his office on the day President John F. Kennedy died. In storms Gaye, unaware of the news and angry that his song wasn’t getting proper promotion while the latest from the lighter-skinned Smokey Robinson was. Things escalate: Gordy calls Gaye “boy,” the artist implies the Motown chief is a liar. They nearly come to blows, but Gordy manages to impart that this tragic day should be a reminder to focus on more important things.
The story Gordy calls “completely true” becomes a powerful moment in the production. So he sought more passion and even a touch of violence from Clifton Oliver, the actor playing him.
Gordy said he shared a Motown principle with the cast — “You’ll always be successful if you tell the truth and make it entertaining.” Still, the truth can be dicey when dealing with old memories and fallen icons like Gaye, who can’t offer any counterpoint. But in creativity there’s conflict, and he wanted all sides to come through onstage.
“I think about the fights and the arguments we had,” he said of the man once married to Gordy’s late sister, Anna Gordy Gaye. “Yet I’ve always said, ‘Marvin Gaye was the truest singer — the truest artist — I’ve ever known.’”
Gordy’s jaunt down memory lane takes literal turns as he walks through the museum. He passes the area now serving as a replica of his apartment down a narrow set of stairs he joked was once his getaway from bill collectors to the former Studio A. Behind him is the studio’s original Steinway grand piano, recently refurbished with money from former Beatle and Motown fan Paul McCartney. On the wall are classic photos of Motown stars in the same cramped studio.
“I can’t believe that it’s this small,” Gordy says, echoing the words of tourists from across the globe when they enter some of pop culture’s most hallowed ground. He pauses and takes it all in. “So much stuff coming full circle. It’s amazing.”